A block from Amazon’s signature Spheres in Seattle, a small trailer was parked Monday in a lot that will soon become home to another massive apartment tower. Adorned on the outside with an illustration of eyeglasses and the phrase “Your everyday smart glasses are here,” the pale green trailer was intended to grab the attention of people walking by.
The trailer only had room inside for a couple of people at a time, but there was plenty to see.
Inside, visitors discovered yet another piece of technology intended to keep us connected in our busy lives.
North, a Canadian company backed by Amazon through its Alexa Fund, has parked its trailer at 2301 Seventh Ave. for the week before it heads down the coast to San Francisco. The traveling exhibition is meant to get its product — Focals — in front of more customers, especially on the West Coast, and do fittings for people who want to order the smart glasses. North doesn’t offer the glasses for purchase online, so in order to buy them, customers first have to do a custom fitting.
The trailer had a glasses showroom, and further inside, there was a fitting area behind a gray curtain with a stool and an array of cameras that looked like it would fit in well in any sci-fi movie.
During my visit, I was fitted for a pair of Focals and I learned how to link them with a smartphone, which gave me the ability to, among other things, read and respond to text messages and calendar notifications, communicate with Amazon’s Alexa and call an Uber.
The glasses come with a controller called Loop that fits on your finger like some sort of a smart ring. It has a small joystick you can push down on and use to toggle between Focals’ various capabilities.
Despite being a foreign technology, it was pretty easy to pick up. Toggling down on the finger ring opens up a notification center. By toggling right, you can see text messages, your calendar and actions you are in the middle of, such as getting directions to a nearby landmark or restaurant.
Pushing the trigger button down opens Alexa. I wasn’t able to get Alexa to work on the demo model, but my guide, North Retail Team Lead Adam Hackney, assured me that the glasses can access many of the digital brain’s 80,000-plus skills.
The projection takes up a very small part of the field of view and moves with you as you turn your heard. Graphically, it’s basic and might be hard to read for some, but that keeps it from being too distracting.
To get fitted for the glasses, I sat in a stool, looking at dual screens straight ahead and an array of cameras surrounding me to the left and right. The cameras captured my face and I had to line myself up with a pair of glasses super-imposed on the screen to get the right shot.
The computer then created a 3D model of my head and ran a simulation to see which of North’s more than 40 versions of Focals would fit. The size the computer spit out was apparently a 94 percent match for my noggin — and they fit quite well.
After getting fitted and making sure everything works, customers can put in an order that they retrieve in a couple weeks. North representatives couldn’t say for sure how they would get the glasses to the customer, as it is a more complex process than a simple package drop-off, but assured us they’d have systems in place.
Focals are the latest product that attempts to fulfill the futuristic potential created by things like Google Glass to put the capabilities of smartphones right in front of our faces.
“It seemed like the direction that people were wanting to go staying connected to things that matter to you that are really in the moment but aren’t distracting on a phone and heads down,” Hackney said about the company’s decision to build smart glasses. The whole concept was to come up with an idea that fit with a heads-up type of product.”
It’s an interesting concept for those who want to stay connected all the time. But it’s also another way to tie us to our devices, and it’s certainly easy to see how it could be distracting to be looking at someone and listening to them and then see a text message pop up in the field of vision.
I could live without the text messaging feature as it feels more complicated to do on glasses than it would be on my phone. But I liked the step-by-step directions telling me where to turn and how far I am from my destination. That lets people keep their heads up and look around rather than burying their faces in their phones while walking.
North wouldn’t say how many pairs of Focals it has sold since the product hit the market in November. The company has permanent showrooms in Toronto and New York City.
North does plan to open more showrooms, but the trailer is a way to get the product in front of more customers in more locations faster.
“With so many people interested in seeing this product, instead of buying a whole bunch of retail spaces and investing in those locations in a permanent setting we thought this might be more fun, especially from an event perspective,” Hackney said.
North recently slashed the price of Focals, from $999 down to $599. It also just unveiled prescription versions, which cost $200 more.
The company is based in Kitchener, Ontario, about 60 miles west of Toronto, and it has north of 400 employees. Under its prior name of Thalmic Labs, the company raised $120 million in 2016, led by the Alexa Fund, Intel Capital, and Fidelity Investments Canada. Focals were on display at CES in Las Vegas last month at Amazon’s booth, part of the growing number of third-party devices that incorporate the tech giant’s voice assistant.
North’s first product, under its former moniker, was the Myo gesture-controlled armband, a wearable with sophisticated sensor technology. Myo has a number of applications, from medicine, to education, to entertainment.